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After legions of diversity program­s have failed to help put more women into senior positions, active sponsorship is increasingly seen as the only pragmatic way for women to progress.Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Gaenor Bagley is a rare species: a woman on the board of a multinational organization. Yet the head of people at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the professional services firm, is sometimes nagged by a feeling that she did something wrong for decades. "I had assumed that people would know what I wanted to do [in my career]. But I needed to actually say it."

The epiphany that she should articulate her ambitions to someone who could exert influence on her behalf came three years ago, when she was a participant in PwC's female partner sponsorship program. She was sponsored by Ian Powell, chairman and senior partner of PwC, which ultimately ended with her being invited to join the board. "I wish I'd pushed myself forward earlier," she says.

Unlike a mentor, who offers advice and allows his or her charge to let off steam about such issues as work-life balance, a sponsor is typically someone two rungs up the corporate ladder who advocates a person's promotion.

PwC, frustrated at the lack of pro­gress made by women in reaching senior positions, decided to launch the female partner sponsorship program in 2010. The board identified 26 female partners – including Ms. Bagley – who had "senior leadership potential," in the words of Sarah Churchman, who oversees the firm's diversity program. They were matched with senior male executives who introduced them to their contacts and involved them in high-profile assignments. Three years later, the firm was surprised at the results: 60 per cent of the women had moved into a leadership role, such as joining the executive board, or were running a business unit; 90 per cent had been promoted.

After legions of diversity program­s have failed to help put more women into senior positions, active sponsorship is increasingly seen as the only pragmatic way for women to progress. Fiona Hath­orn, managing director of Women on Boards U.K., believes advocacy is crucial to changing the gender balance of boards.

As a 2010 Harvard Business Review rep­ort in conjunction with the Center for Work-Life Policy put it: "Women enter the white-collar workforce in even greater numbers than men: 53 females for every 47 males. Yet as all employees in large corporations move from entry-level to middle management, and from mid- to senior-level positions, men advance disproportionately, outstripping wom­en nearly two to one. At the very topmost rungs of the career ladder, men outnumber women nearly four to one."

The research discovered that very few women have sponsors or colleagues senior enough to help them up the ladder: Men are 46 per cent more likely than women to have a sponsor.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, ac­­k­nowledges in her book Lean In the importance of sponsors to her career. The first was when she was research assistant to Larry Summers, following him to the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury, where at 29 she became his chief of staff.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor will be published in September, says sponsorship "is a transactional exchange. To attract a sponsor, you need to be a star. The senior person has to believe in you and believe you will contribute to their success." She says sponsorship is really a way of giving a term to something that men have benefited from historically – patronage and old-boys' networks.

Women are very good at friendship at work, says Ms. Hewlett, who heads the Center for Talent Innovation, a U.S. diversity and talent management think-tank. "But they find it very hard to use it. Men don't have that problem. They see relationships as seamless. They put a different value on relationships at work. The only thing that matters is power. Women instinctively go for the wrong person – they tend to go for a leader they want to emulate, a role model. They need to go for someone with power." Also, they tend to underestimate the significance of patronage: "Wom­en think it should be about performance. They want it to be pure meritocracy."

Danica Dilligard, partner at Ernst & Young, the professional services firm, says women "tend to be overmentored and undersponsored. They get plenty of advice and don't get clear support."

Kerrie Peraino, senior vice-president of international hum­an resources at American Ex­press, the credit card company, points out that sponsors have much more to lose – and potentially gain – than mentors. "A sponsor ends up using their influence and political capital to help your career advancement. A mentor doesn't stake their reputation on a mentee. … And the fact that I've said yes to a mentor doesn't reflect on me. Sponsorship carries with it a high risk and high reward."

A sponsor should also gain from the relationship: Ms. Hathorn points out that an advocate may benefit from having sponsored people across regions and departments.

Randall Peterson, professor of org­anizational behaviour at London Business School, says it is better if a sponsor is not your direct-line supervisor because they might have an interest in keeping you and inhibiting your promotion.

Opinion is split over whether it is more effective to have a formal program such as PwC's or to let it take place informally. Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, senior lecturer at Henley Business School's Centre for Entrepreneurship, believes the relationship will fail if a sponsor takes on the role as a box-ticking exercise in the hope of proving their diversity credentials.

A 2011 McKinsey Quarterly report identified two types of sponsor that may prove more damaging than helpful to women: "the relentless coach," who pushes the person to the breaking point, and "the devil's advocate," whose constant ques­tioning drains confidence and energy.

The office rumour-mill may also prove a challenge if a senior male executive is seen to be helping a junior female employee. Ms Hewlett is blunt: "It can go wrong over sex. Men may be fearful of gossip and of being sued." The way around it, she says, is to make the professional nature of the relationship explicit – which includes confining meetings to offices.

A protégé may believe they can take advantage of sponsorship, warns Ms. Peraino: "They may think 'I could kick back and get promoted.'" It does not work like that, she insists: sponsorship "is not unconditional."

It is also better to have more than one sponsor, says Ms. Peraino. A sponsor may leave the company, fall out with the protégé or the latter may advance beyond them. Ms Dilligard agrees: She is now more senior than the sponsor she had 10 years ago.

PwC is so pleased with its sponsorship scheme that it plans to broaden it this year to more employees. Is Ms. Churchman not worried that the scheme discriminates against men? "Our goal is to increase the number of senior women. The problem is that when you look at being fair to everyone it can lead to inertia. We're only levelling the playing field, not positively discriminating."